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Mary McNamara: Gale Sayers and 'Brian's Song' changed sports movies, and male friendship, forever

By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

There are some movies that change the world and then the world moves on. Maybe the change sticks, maybe it doesn't. Either way, people eventually forget about the movie itself unless something occurs to remind them.

The death of Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers on Wednesday reminds those of us old enough to remember of the wonder that was, and is, "Brian's Song."

Honestly, if you want to know on which side of 50 someone is, just hum a few notes of the film's plaintive theme song and watch the eyes. For those who have any memory of its airing in 1971 as an ABC Movie of the Week, or the many re-airings during the '70s or even the paperback novel version of the movie, the tears should be pretty much instantaneous.

Based on a portion of Sayers' autobiography "I Am Third," "Brian's Song" told the story of the friendship between Sayers (played by Billy Dee Williams) and Brian Piccolo (James Caan). The men met as rookies on the Chicago Bears and became the first interracial roommates in the NFL. Both running backs, the two were obviously competitive and temperamentally quite different - Sayers was shy and serious, Piccolo a gregarious funny man - but they grew to appreciate each other. Piccolo was diagnosed with an aggressive form of testicular cancer in 1969 and died in 1970 at the age of 26. A month before his teammate's death, Sayers was given the George S. Halas Courage Award; accepting it, he said the judges had chosen the wrong man and gave an emotional speech about his love for and admiration of Piccolo.

The speech scene in "Brian's Song" remains the most heartbreaking few minutes of any sports movie ever.

The film, which aired just a year after Piccolo's death, is a beautiful thing still. Yes, it is a 1971 TV movie, with all that implies, and there is a scene in which Piccolo uses the N-word as a means of forcing Sayers to train harder, which devolves into laughter in a way that seems hopelessly optimistic about the obsolescence of the term.

 

But "Brian's Song" also serves as a reminder that "family entertainment" can deliver just as powerful a punch as any hard-R tale of gritty realism - and that social revolution comes in many forms, some of them quite unexpected.

Written by William Blinn, it is a straightforward story, laid out in the opening minutes by Jack Warden (who also plays Chicago Bears head coach George Halas) in what may be the best use of narration in the history of film:

"This is the story about two men, one named Gale Sayers, the other Brian Piccolo. They came from different parts of the country, they competed for the same job. One was white, the other Black. ... Our story is about how they came to know each other, fight each other and help each other. Ernest Hemingway said that every true story ends in death. Well, this is a true story."

Are you crying yet? I am. "Brian's Song" broke the hearts of millions, and they stayed broken for years. It was the most watched, and wept over, television movie of the year, so popular that it was shown in theaters for a time. It launched the film careers of both Caan and Williams (one would next star in "The Godfather," the other in "Lady Sings the Blues"), won five Emmys, a Peabody and a permanent place high on various lists of best sports films ever.

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